Reaching Out to Young Adults Will Screw Up Your Church

I have a theory about young adults and the church. Here it goes. Let me know what you think.

While many churches say “we want young people” they don’t really. If young adults actually showed up and joined their church for good, the change they’d naturally bring with them would be stark, even off-putting. In fact, making a congregation welcoming for young adults necessarily means it will become less comfortable for the current members.

It’s just a theory, but here’s why I’m suggesting it. A few stories…

First story: the ministry I lead hosts a book group that meets in a back room at a local coffee shop. We read books related to religion in a very open-minded atmosphere. Few of our book group members attend church. Some don’t believe in God. Most are highly suspicious of organized religion. Well, at a book group discussion recently conversation turned to why people don’t go to church and one of the members exclaimed, “Wait a second…this, this book group — it’s sort of like church! I mean, I’d never go to church, but this community reminds me a lot of one. Wow.” He was floored.

As many have noted about young adults today, we tend to seek belonging first; believing comes later. To welcome young adults churches need to make places where we can belong and then believe. Belonging takes time and often happens best outside the church’s walls. For churches to do this means, for many of them, major change in where, how, and for whom they program.

Second story (or stories, really). Several of my young adult pastor friends tell about a time when one of them is hanging out around town, meeting new people, just being his cool/nerdy self when someone finds out he’s a pastor. And this person thinks the pastor is pretty hip so she asks, “Hey, can I come to your church.” The pastor sighs and says, “Yes, but you’ve got to know: I’m really different at church.”

These pastor friends, to survive in their parishes, have taken the edge off their preaching, their politics, their big ideas, even their theology. Though the pastors know young adults are drawn to their edgy honest selves, they also know their more established members — with the power and the checkbooks — have other ideas. A lot would need to change for the pastor to be able to respond to his friend saying, “Yes! Please, come to my church. You’d love it!” And, if that gal at the bar would truly love it, what would the church’s choir members think?

Third story. I was once at a church-related event where young adults were going around the table introducing themselves to the group. One person shared his name and then said, “And, I want to be upfront: I’m an atheist.” For a second, I held my breath to see what would happen next. Quickly, someone said, “Great!” And another smiled and said, “So glad you’re here.” There were smiles all the way around the table.

I can’t help but wonder how many congregations would welcome that young atheist with a genuine smile rather than a leeriness that he might infect the confirmation class with dastardly atheism-laced questions. Welcoming young adults that fit the perfect church visitor mold is easy. You know the type church members long for: some magical newcomer who was raised in a perfect household, is married (not divorced), has a few kids, enjoys his well-paying job, and, of course, has orthodox unquestioning beliefs. Fewer and fewer young adults fit this image (if anyone ever did). To welcome young adults these days churches need to welcome the atheist, the single mom, the tattooed, the unemployed, and yes (of course!) even the same-sex couple.

Those are my stories. And that’s my theory: for most congregations to truly become welcoming for young adults they will necessarily need to unsettle current members. Discuss.


  1. Adam, your hypothesis surely fits some congregations, but it all depends on the particular congregation. The congregation I serve is nurturing a cadre of young adults, some of whom come to worship sporadically, and some of whom don’t come at all. They do meet for dinner together, and the women in the group have formed a rather tight Presbyterian Women’s Circle (Go figure!) I know another rather conservative congregation in town that has just received into membership 2 gay couples (although I suspect several of the members haven’t figured that out yet.) It’s important not to assume that every congregation fits a stereotype — just as the same is true about young adults. You’re right, of course , that the challenges are real, but lots of congregations are up for the challenge.

  2. Maggie J says:

    I’m afraid the stereotype is true for a lot of churches. I’m over 65 and I couldn’t get my last church to budge on anything. Yes, they wanted younger members, but those younger members had to act and look like they were 85. (The stodgy 85, not the 85 year olds who are open to new ideas and love change.)

    It’s really sad. At the last church, I was accused every Sunday of wanting to destroy their church. And as I look back, they were right. I did want to destroy the church that was happy coming on Sunday morning, being nice to each other and locking the doors against the possibility that someone might come in and steal something from them (their complacency, perhaps?)

    Oh well.

    • I agree, Maggie J. I left two Methodist churches which were set in their ways as you described them. The Methodist churches are losing members; I don’t think they’ll be around for much longer. Churches need to change with the times–or they will die. Simple as that.

  3. Well, okay, but I wonder why we talk about young adults as if they are some other species. We have conservative young adults in our church — some of whom get all annoyed when the old hippie-types with their peacemaking-feministy ideas start talking. Those young adults in their starched shirts roll their eyes.

    Some are theologically conservative, and would jump all over your poor atheist much quicker than the oldsters. And because class is as decisive as age, some of those young people wish we’d stick with Bach and the organ and can’t stand the guitars and dulcimers — and drums –forget about it!

    • Gail Bigg says:

      Tracy, you took the words out of my mouth. The writer has a good point about churches’ need to be open, but in my experience. open or closed-minded, liberal or conservative don’t correspond much to age.

    • Mark Henning says:

      And further don’t assume that a preference for organ and Duruflé (Bach is ok too) Bears any correlation with uptight and conservative. My congregation has over a dozen retired pastors, seminarians and theologians worshipping next to no fewer than two dozen glbt members, many wh have served in leadership positions. On any given Sunday you will see suits next to shorts and t shirt next to traditional African brightly colored dresses, shirts and hats; all singing the Bach gospel verse in four part polyphony.

      • Shirley Reiss says:

        Basically, I’m with you. The world is big and diverse. God of course, is even Bigger. I’m 77 and living in a ‘Retirement Community’ where a lot of my friends and fellow church members also reside. There are many different types: liberals –committed and sometimes noisy, conservatives (quiet and…..?). Some are infirm with lively, quite clear minds. Others are quite the opposite. Many are articulate, mobile, and energetic. ETC. ETC, etc. I’m a contradictory, perceptive, maverick (I think). I haven’t been to my church much since I moved here. Of course it was a big change,but there were also several other changes taking place. I’ll only touch on one of them. I think it was the younger generation moving up into wanting to have more influence at church and also being able to do just that. I think that I have seen a couple of such sea changes happening since I joined in 1962, one of them being that of my own generation. I hope we were somewhat tactful about it Maybe we were only just a little–civil rights,etc. My personal experience was that being put out to pasture could be painful, but could be survived, thank you. Somehow or other, music was involved. . What a shame! Rock meant so much to the new generation, almost a religion. My own tastes were fairly wide–Jazz, Folk, Old Timey, some Pop Standards, the Beatles, old hymns, and God help me, Classical. I even joined the Church choir and loved it., Even if it took a lot of work and dedication to learn how to do it properly. Then it turned out that some, but not all, of the new generation seemed to see us as some sort of oppressors, like unto their parents. And I liked so many of the younger generation. So the two generations stereotyped each other and moved into mutual antagonism. Thus we repeated history. Many kind and loving folks tried to help, but we moved into tough times anyway.. Three pastors later, things are definitely improving. My hip replacement is successful and I’m getting more active. I’m active here at the Old folks Home—i sing in two choirs and have a special friend in memory support.. I attend some of the chapel services. Family surprises are working themselves out. Maybe I’ll get back to church soon. Love to all, Shirley

  4. I know someone who wrote something of a similar vein here once:

    I’m with you man. I meet people…make good connections…but our church is much older, and not as open as I am to unconventional folks…of course people want young people. But…perhaps they don’t realize it…but young people don’t have the $$$ to help out in ways many folks really want/expect them to.

    • I wonder if it isn’t just that they may not have the money to help out, but that we approach supporting financially in a way that doesn’t speak deeply to the passion of the folks. Supporting budgets and overall ministry is hard to put a face and a picture to- supporting the budding children’s ministry that Samantha is organizing, helping to fund that soup kitchen over at Main Street Episcopal, etc.

      I would point us to Dr. Rodger Nishioka and his great presentation at an ELCA Synod Assembly a few years back on “Who are these young adults?” Down a third of the page, split into 5 videos- Great resource:

    • Jessi Lawson says:

      I have had a similar problem at my last church. I was all for donating my time to projects and ministries in and out of the church. After college though I ran into my hard time financially and found myself in situations were older more stable parishioners were expecting me to spend just as much as they were on the ministries I was working with. I just couldn’t do that and have since backed off to the point where I am not even attending Sunday services.

      That said I am the sort of young adult who has radical ideas and would love to spread them but most importantly I want to be a part of a solid community where I can go to Eucharist on Sunday and worship in the 1982 hymnal like any other episcopalian.

      • Stephny says:

        Don’t let them put you off, Jessi. I think church asking for money before your butt even hits the pew can be very off-putting, but stick around anyway. It is worth it. Bring some friends and follow is Jesus’ footsteps.

  5. Fortunately for me, being a young adult and a pastor, I not only have never said, “I’m different at church than I am out here”… I would find myself hollow and frustrating if I did ever act like that. Part of being a child of God and a pastor in a generation that is by and large leery of religious institutions who considers the institutions as faceless, unfeeling, and corrupted corporate entities means that I in my daily living can serve as the best buttress and defense against that image of corruption. Granted, that means that I have to be upfront, real, broken, and vulnerable while still being a leader and passionate follower of Christ, but that authenticity speaks to any generation and any person in a stage of life, I’ve found. When people find out in other places and situations that I’m a pastor, their response is usually, “Really? You don’t act like one!” My relationship with them takes on a whole new perspective because it is about their relationship with faith communities and people of faith, organized or not, and how there is a way to live differently, to live authentically, to live broken and still live faith daily. That’s my two cents- Reaching out artificially to grab more young adults will always fail- you should be in relationship with Kyle, Staci, Aaron, Bryan, Steff, Shannon, Erik, and they will see you for who you are and hopefully see the church for what it can be- a welcoming, albeit broken place where we see God’s activity in the world, in our lives, and in the love of neighbor.

    • Dude,

      I think he was saying to the person “I’m the different one at my church.” NOT “I’m different when I’m at church.”

      Which frankly, I find to be honest and refreshing. Sure, my congregation was open enough to call someone like myself as their pastor – someone who is quite different than them. But we’re finding out in our time together that what they think they want and what they’re willing to do are two very different things.

      So when strangers tell me “I’d come to YOUR church.” I feel sad because I am not a majority at my church and my church probably doesn’t have the capacity to make that person feel welcome right now.

      • Such is the two-way nature of writing- no sarcasm fonts or little * to denote where intentional ambiguity lies.

        See, when I read this: And this person thinks the pastor is pretty hip so she asks, “Hey, can I come to your church.” The pastor sighs and says, “Yes, but you’ve got to know: I’m really different at church.”

        What I hear is: I’m really different when I’m at church- as in, living one way socially, and another way in the church. God is not just in the church, God is an active and living part of our every step during the day, which means to me that this is an inauthentic way to live.

        What you heard, if I understand correctly, is this: I’m really different from the rest of the folks at church. Which may be true, and not just speaking out or refraining to in regards to social or political views, but embodying a different way of living, modeling it to create a ripple effect in how people perceive a faith life taken out for a walk every day.

        I don’t like what I heard- I like what you heard. So, yes, if the pastor was called and was the ‘different one’ at church, kudos to all involved. If the pastor is having to live differently, than I would struggle mightily to be in that pastor’s shoes. I’m more of a ‘here’s who I am’ kind of pastor. I hope others find that as refreshing as you found your reading of the article to be. Thanks in either case! :)

  6. So the trick is to discern how to screw up our churches just right. * How to self-differentiate and be yourself with authority, even if it threatens them just enough to let them see some powerful truth– but not so much they self-destruct. Sometimes that means finding ways of bringing them face to face with their own fearful demands that you fit their expectations. It can be pretty prophetic. Or pathetic, if you mess up. But that’s the risk we take. * How to challenge them to become more Jesus-like in reaching out to others, especially those who are different from them. (This is the essence of the Pentecost experience.) * And therefore, how to reach out to them, who are different from us. (I’m 58 and sometimes I feel like I’m two generations removed from my peers…) * How to create a community within or alongside the existing congregation that is more unconditionally loving and embracing… * How to empower the young folks who are not the ones with the influence and the checkbooks to be the church anyway, out loud and proud and “with authority.” (Why should the people with honest questions be silenced by the “rulers of the synagogue”?) Never an easy balancing act. But if we’re going to be “edgy,” that’s the pastoral/prophetic edge we live on. Yee-hah!

    • Martina Sierra says:

      I so agree with you Steve. It’s how to let the powerful truth be seen, but not be destructive. Young people can be the mirror before the eyes of the church if one lets them be, and vice-versa, and reaching out to them needs to be done in such a way as to give them some authority even though they may not be the ones with the checkbooks. And what is a young person anyway? I feel a lot as though I fit that category, and I like you, am in my mid 50s. I have ideas that could stir up the congregation I’m a part of. The only difference is that I have learned a bit of wisdom in the church of hard knocks as to when to keep my mouth shut and when to open it wide. Maybe we’re talking about the person who just doesn’t fit the status quo, rather than the young person. But whomever we’re talking about, it is certainly true that inviting them in WILL change the church, and the church really needs to take a look at whether that is really what they want or not before going after a “young-person’s” ministry. It will be a bumpy ride for all.

  7. Note: I say all this is as reasonably-young adult who has attended and belonged to small, denominationally-loyal, high-liturgy congregations as well as evangelical megachurches and everything in between.

    So here we go:

    Yes, and what of the older people who are there, and who are part of an established community that has ways of functioning and living the faith? Are the old people the only ones who are expected to change?

    For young people to say, “I would come to church if they did church the way I wanted them to” is incredibly arrogant. It’s like saying, “I’ll marry you so long as you change and become the perfect spouse who always does what I want.”

    Yes, there are churches that are packed with the “we’ve always done it this way and we refuse to budge an inch on anything” crowd, and many of them need to be lovingly called out on their…inflexibility. But “young people” don’t just get to join an already-established community and demand that the entire thing change to suit their fancy. The congregation is what it is, and to a certain extent, the question must be asked of newcomers: can you live with us as we are, warts and all, or not? Because it’s unfair of the 80 year olds to ask the 25 year olds to instantly become 80 – but the reverse is also true.

    • I feel like a good example of what you are saying is church music. I have heard so many people, young and old complain about there not being enough of their type of music or that the other type is awful. I think both parties need to realize that both styles have their strengths and weakness and no party is going to give theirs up completely. We should give a mix to serve both groups.

      I fell like this article is more about ideas the young people bring. I am very liberal, and tough I do not expect an anyone to agree with my opinions entirely. I do feel they need to accept me and at
      least be open to them, as i should be to them.

    • Well said!

  8. Doesn’t this cut both ways? Couldn’t you say young people say they want to belong, but then resent being asked to participate in ways that define belonging in the existing community (i.e. regular,worship attendance, giving of financial gifts)?

  9. Nice work, Adam. Too true. We young pastors, though, need to not be different in our parishes…we need to be ourselves. Hopefully in doing so we can show folks that diverse people can be church together.

    • Mary Vance says:

      I’m not a young pastor, but I am a relatively new pastor, and I understand the feeling of being limited in one’s ability to express our personal social and political views, but pastors need to remember that they are called to be pastors, not social activists. If you are called to be a social activist be a social activist, not a pastor. Leading with pastoral care may mean intentionally restraining expressions of one’s personal views.

  10. Anne Russ says:

    Well done. Anytime I talk to churches who want to grow, I tell them that young people in church can be very disruptive. And if they’re ready for some disruption, then carry on! But if they aren’t, they may want to spend a little more time getting to a place where they are comfortable with the probability of discomfort.

  11. amen, on all counts. And i especially needed to hear this today. i’m getting criticism for some of the edgier things that i write on my blog…But i pride myself on NEVER having to say ‘i’m really different at church.!’ While that might get me in trouble on occasion, i think most folks know we are all better off with a measure of authenticity.
    this is great, challenging stuff that i will share with my leaders. thank you!

  12. Elizabeth says:

    I have felt like this at times and also why am I doing it if they are acting like this. But then I remimber the bigger piture. My Kids and being a Methodist and how much it is a part of me.

    “It’s really sad. At the last church, I was accused every Sunday of wanting to destroy their church. And as I look back, they were right. I did want to destroy the church that was happy coming on Sunday morning, being nice to each other and locking the doors against the possibility that someone might come in and steal something from them (their complacency, perhaps?)”

    Are church has a group of people know who are willing to step out and do what is needed to grow and reach out to others that are not “like” us. It has taken a few years but more of us are seeing that we need to change what church has looked like for the last 50 years or so. Its not the message we are changing but the package.

  13. I love this article. I have more liberal beliefs about how we should help the poor and outcasted and what not. I have had a hell of a time finding a church that would accept me openly, and even sort of match my ideas for helping others. It seems like a lot of churches in my area have the idea that if anyone thinks anything different than the status quo then they need to shut up. Literally i had an elder tell me i was just causing trouble, even though i was just following what i thought the bible said. Maybe this will change as the young adults grow up and get more rooted. Something has to change or else we might loose a generation of believers.

    • Have you ever visited a Unitarian-Universalist (UU) congregation?

      • I wish that default icon for my comment didn’t make me look so grouchy or something!

      • I’ve been to a number of UU churches and more often than not, I’m not particularly welcomed. Add to that the all too common hostility from the pulpit towards straight white males, and I can see why the UU churches overall are not seeing much growth.

        I have been studying quite a bit and have found that I don’t really care much for Unitarians but I do identify very strongly with Universalists. It has been an interesting journey so far.

        • It’s important to note that modern-day Unitarian Universalism is neither Unitarian nor Universalist, though it obviously has roots in both of those traditions. Too much to explain here, but if anyone is interested, I would check out the UUA for more information about how a religion works when there is no central dogma.

          Unfortunately, no central dogma means a lot of individual variation, and so each UU church is often wildly different from the next. I’m sorry that you were met with hostility from the pulpit towards straight white males – that is unconscionable and completely not in line with UU values. My UU church tends to be more conservative than most, but we are welcoming of all types – straight white males included!

          I have been a UU for three years and have found a lot to love in this faith tradition. I hope if you ever have the opportunity to visit a more loving UU church, that you’ll give it another try.

    • Stephny says:

      My Episcopal Church is very into social outreach. They have accepted me, and I am extremely unorthodox.

  14. Mary Vance says:

    Wow, lots of comments and good stuff. Here’s another story: Our congregation is majority conservative, Republican and over 55. So far in 2012, we have 15 new members, 11 of them are single and under 30, 6 of the 11 are male. All six of the young men have been going to church here for over a year (mostly 2-3 years). They were all “believers” when they started coming, but at first had no interest in joining a formal religious institution, having grown up in conservative Christian traditions. After a lengthy time being involved in the life of the church, feeling that they were welcomed and part of the church family, they decided they wanted to make a commitment to the church by formally joining. if I were a Methodist, I’d say it warms my heart just thinking about it.

  15. Great blog. As one of the older people with deeper pockets, I am amazed at how much we “seniors” want to make the church a place for us, not others. Sometimes I think that every church needs to enforce the rules of serving in Numbers 4 and not let anyone over the age of 50 have any leadership position in the church (of course, that would rule me out). There is a valid reason for this, however, in that about the time we reach age 50, many of us suffer from severe hardening of the attitude and become unwilling to change. What we really need to do is help the younger adults to learn how to be leaders in the church and to pray and contribute our talents in other ways.

    • Gail Bigg says:

      Sorry Jim, but I have to object, and ask you to reconsider the
      ageism in your post. Old people are marginalized enough in our society as it is, without the church following suit. Some of the greatest spiritual teachers in our world are over 80 — look at Archbishop Tutu. Let us take a leaf from the African-American churches and listen at the feet of our elders, as well as encouraging leadership in the young.

    • I was quite active with one church for a while and discovered that it was basically being run by a group of old women. The lack of diversity became fairly obvious in short order, they would apply the prejudices and priorities of older, retired women to every discussion, usually to the exclusion of other viewpoints and desires.

      From a sociological standpoint I found it rather interesting, but as a member of the church, I was very frustrated. For a faith that preaches diversity, their blindness to their own monoculture was rather telling.

  16. Anne Slater says:

    I am newly 70, and a 46 year member of the First Unitarian Church of Philadelphia (PA). My best friends in the congregation are 19, 82, 77, 35, 10, 32……. Our leaders are all ages, and we older ones regularly heave great sighs of relief that our young (35ish) minister has led us to attract people of all ages: newly retired to Philadelphia, newly wed, newly out, newly searching for a spiritual community that respects every person.

    It’s the ethos of the congregation and the desire to share the faith. (And to learn from others)

  17. I led a college-age ministry for 12 years and we grew rather large. We never had much of a problem fitting into the church. I think it’s because of the teaching we did with those young adults about the church. We would teach them that the church is a body/family and when the body comes together Grandma and Grandpaw will be there, your brother and sister will be there, your uncle and aunt will be there and cousins too. The point is; It won’t be about what you like or want it will be about the family and how the family praises God. Sometimes we will sing songs Grandpaw likes, sometimes songs you like, but it won’t be about you. Someone in the family may look at you crossways because you have all those tattoos, but keep in mind, he has issues too and we need to love him. Afterall, he is a part of the family. Oh and BTW, this ministry is not about you either. It’s about Jesus and doing the will of the Father. So, Sunday when we go visit the family…be nice and love them.

    • RollieB says:

      I like your reply a lot, Linn. It sounds like the correct approach (at least one of them).

      As to Adam’s original post: I’m not sure many folks have experienced a truly open church. I’m an older guy (67) and grew up in the mainline tradition (Presbyterian). Wandered through Lutheranism, Reformed, Covenant… and a few others. But, in my view, denominations are part of the problem. In my experience the pulpit is used to expound dogma based on creeds. It is the norm in most all of the Christian tradition. Then, once you find a truly open table, all heaven breaks loose. Our current church, even though very much Christian, has Buddhists, and a few Sundays ago a Sufi Muslim took communion with us. Anyone else ever experienced that before? But the best part is no one was flummoxed… it was all hugs and hand shakes. Heaven on earth….

  18. “for most congregations to truly become welcoming for young adults they will necessarily need to unsettle current members. Discuss.”

    As a current member of an ELCA church, I am very unsettled by the lack of change in my church. Even more by the lack of joy. For the past couple of years, I’ve been growing increasingly less content. I don’t have a problem with any of my church’s practices in and of themselves. I do, however, have a big, huge, making-me-want-to-stay-in-bed-Sunday-morning problem with these practices being put together and clung to in a way that leaves our worship and community completely devoid of any sense of joy. Devoid of the sense that we are seeking joy. Devoid of the notion that worship is even supposed to be joyful.

    We are bound by geography to this congregation. We are bound by lifelong membership and support for the wider church and its ministries to the ELCA. Why does that have to leave us feeling bound in our pews? Young adults? Chaos? Change? Bring it.

    Having read a few similar comments, I wonder how many of the “old school” in our churches are actually more willing to embrace the new than we might think?

  19. David Cupp says:

    I find this blog particularly interesting. And I apologize in advance if this was already talked about in other posts, but I wanted to get my thoughts on here without any input from other commentators. Anyway, it seems as though you want us to not be welcoming to new young adults for the sake of current members. But the “church” or congregation/building where believers meet (not to be confused with the Church or the body of Christ) has 2 primary roles.
    1. Make new disciples of Christ.
    2. Build up the Church.
    The far more important role is to make new disciples. Why? Because regardless of how much you grow in your faith, you will always be accepted into heaven based on what Jesus did on the cross. People who don’t have that relationship with Christ as Lord, Savior, and Friend, will not have that acceptance upon reaching heaven.
    If we don’t change to bring more people to know the Lord for the sake of current members, then we have missed the point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. To save sinners. What I don’t mean is that we change our doctrine and theology to fit the current beliefs of the day. I only mean change the style and manner in which the gospel is presented. As long as the fundamental beliefs and values of the Bible are maintained, everything else can change. Style of music, style of preaching, etc…
    I personally feel that if someone wants to leave because the church is changing so it accepts more people, let them. If it’s the theology, that’s fine too, let them leave. It’s not a crime to let someone leave the church. It’s their job to find a church that they can grow and mature in. It’s our job to make new disciples and help them in their walk as much as we can until they want to leave as well.
    I’m sorry if this is all wrong and filled with errors and misconceptions of the “church” and the Church, but I am only 19 and I’m still trying to learn. Thank you for reading.

  20. I have to wonder about some of your points, particularly the second or third one. The main thrust of those, I think, is summed up nicely in this statement: “To welcome young adults these days churches need to welcome the atheist, the single mom, the tattooed, the unemployed, and yes (of course!) even the same-sex couple.”

    I know you’re coming from a Christian perspective and so may not realize, but Unitarian Universalist churches the world over do exactly this. My church is comprised primarily of just those people you list – atheists, single parents, LOTS of tattoos, lots of unemployment, and LOTS of homosexual/bisexual/transexual/transgendered/questioning/asexual/I’mprobablymissingsomethinghere people. And yet, we still have a really difficult time finding young adults and keeping them as active church members. We are exactly the edgy sort of community that you say many young adults want – but we still struggle. Our primary mission is to belong first, then believe. So I think that something deeper must be going on, something more intrinsic to what it means to be a young adult in modern society. Being edgy and nonconformist is not enough.

  21. You know, I have never blogged here before, but I feel compelled so share a story. After being away from church for 30 years, I am blessed to belong to a pretty large congregation which is progressive, inclusive and activist, but is deeply rooted in traditional Episcopal worship and spirituality. We celebrate Eucharist, Choral Evensong, Taize, Jazz Vespers. Including bi-lingual. In other words, we have an abiding love for our Anglican liturgical and musical tradition. We also are blessed with preaching that is not afraid to embrace the issues of the modern world head on, no matter how difficult those issues may be – for us or for others beyond this congregation. And don’t get me wrong – we are not perfect here. This is no nirvana. We have all the problems found in any parish. The old saying “welcome to parish life” belongs to us as well.

    That said, we have a substantial active 20s-30s group, as well as a substantial LGBT presence. These folks participate on all levels, from hiding in the back pews, being active mostly within their own groups, to being fully integrated in the life of the church. Vestry, choir, any and all ministries. As are women in every way – including clergy.

    This is a church where you can belong before your believe. You could tell most anyone on the lawn between services that you are an atheist – that you have hated organized religion for for a long time – and the answer you would most likely get is “welcome aboard – and by the way, you are not alone here in that regard.”

    How did this come about – by making a very brave decision not a few years ago, that is how God intended us to be present in His world. With open arms – God’s arms. What Jesus taught us to do by example. It was a long and rocky road and not a few people left the parish for a “safer” place. A more comfortable place. We took a lot of deep breaths, but we continued to march, took our knocks, continued marching. I guess we’ll never stop marching. I feel joy and tears as I write this. But I know one thing – the Spirit is ALIVE in this wonderful church of ours today. Wonderfully alive. One person at a time, we can make this wonderful church of ours a place more fully alive – where all are welcome. One person at a time, One step at a time. Do not be afraid.

  22. Let’s put this in simple terms:
    – the 20-something young adult wants to be respected and make a difference
    – the 30-something new parent wakes at 6am even on Sunday and seeks support and fellowship
    – the 40- and 50-somethings are building careers while holding their families and marriage together, and want to help the church move forward in strategic ways
    – the 60-somethings like positive experiences, depth, and stability
    – the 70-somethings+ like familiarity as they remember old frinds and old times

    In these different stages and goals are some shared interests, like gold nuggets found in a stream. Where those exist are opportunities to strengthen community. But process is important here. Each group needs to be open to the others in ways where multigenerational activities can happen in upbeat ways. In short, it’s a give-and-take.

  23. Stephny says:

    Young people can smell hypocrisy a mile away and don’t want anything to do with it. Churches need to consider whether their actions match up with their message or not.

  24. I’m not really a young adult anymore (unless you consider 45 the new 25) but I’ve just recently started to attend church regularly. I did my own little exploration of six churches (1 a week during Lent) before deciding on one I felt comfortable attending. I think your story about belonging before believing was particularly important for people to hear. I went into this with the thought I would “fake it until I make it.” I’m not entirely sure about God nevermind Christianity, but I liked the idea of being a member of a community dedicated to the belief that there is something more important than the individual and that works to alleviate the suffering in our community. I’ve decided it is ok to get what I can out of this without feeling like it is hypocritical to attend a church when I can’t define exactly what I believe. I have been open with the pastor about where I am and she and the others in our congregation I have shared with have been just great about accepting me for who I am. I think young people (and not so young people) have to be accepted with all of their doubts.

  25. I think you are right about the need to provide a setting where people can “belong,” then “believe.” Young adults require a place where they can think independently or just “be” without excessive pressure to conform to typical “churchy” protocols. For many years–most of my adulthood–I identified as agnostic or atheist. I did not attend church, nor did I even consider it. Admittedly, though, I did pray quite often and went through periods of Scripture reading. Clearly, these contradictions in my behavior and thinking indicated great ambivalence. What would I say about my current belief as a female mainline Protestant in her late forties? I actually embrace a somewhat traditional approach to religiosity, while at the same time I embrace humor, playfulness, poetic license, and intellectual inquisitiveness. There are traditional spiritual practices, liturgies, readings, and art that I feel are helpful and comforting and that I want to know more about. Simply feeling free to “ask questions” or to express “doubt:” or to be counter-cultural isn’t enough. At my stage in life, I need something more affirming. I need engagement and an awareness of who and what has come before. On my own, I read Scripture, Bibilical commentaries, and theology, and I also attend various classes and lectures on religion themes. I also gotten a spiritual director, who has been of tremendous help to me. While some of my return to church attendance is about embracing tradition, however, I do need to point out that my church embraces social justice on all levels and also is very inclusive. Indeed, I left church many years ago not just because I questioned God’s existence but because I was appalled by the homophobia, classism, and ethnocentrism that I had encountered in church. Although I am not in the LGBT community, I cannot embrace a church that is homophobic. I think homophobia keeps more young people away than many people realize.

  26. Thanks for all the comments, folks. I’m floored — and heartened — by the conversation around young adults and church. A version of this post just went live at Huffington Post’s religion page, so you’re welcome to continue conversation over there. I’ll be interested to see if Huff Post’s audience has a significantly different take or not. Here you go:

    • Elaine A. says:

      Question: Why would an atheist even want to be at church? Curiosity perhaps? I would love to get my non-believing daughter-in-law to church. She’s a lovely person and I think she would enjoy our young, dynamic pastor and our fabulous musicians. She’s a good person but sees no purpose for organized religion. Yes, she’s been invited and if anyone can figure out a way to get her in the door, I would love to hear about it.

  27. New people – young, old, or middle-aged – are disruptive. Its the young adults, or the folks from the new retirement community, or the gentrifying yuppies, or the immigrants who don’t speak English, or the couples with 2.3 children who are buying up the homes in the new construction subdivision.

    To few of any such group and they will feel lost and isolated. Too many, and the people who”built this church” will feel like it’s being taken away.

    One strategy I’ve seen used successfully is to birth a new church inside the old one. Make it a ministry by the existing church to create the space for it, and let the new community grow into itself. When the new community is strong enough, have new and old do joint projects. As the old declines, the new can “pay back” by helping the older community.

    If we think of the local church as a body, it makes sense to think of the generations of community.

  28. My theory is that churches would prefer to be cloned, not to grow. Growth necessarily involves change, and change is disruptive, exciting, and difficult.

    Even as individuals, we seem to want immortality, to die and never change again, rather than resurrection, for resurrection necessitates transformation.

    Thanks for the thoughts and good comments!

  29. I am living proof of this !!!
    I’m not exactly young … Late 30’s …. But my local church did all it could … Well the Rector di,d rather than see change. Many have been hurt in the name of “reaching out” …. Then pushing away !!!
    Rather than unsettle the old regulars who in as many years as I have fingers will be attending church in a box for the last time. What will happen then?
    Thank you for posting this. The fellowship I miss from church is here !!


  1. […] stories in the next room, only to reappear and cuddle up during the sermon. The second way will screw up your church and make it look less like you, but it helps create the kind of openness that might connect with […]

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